This is one of those things that may seem horribly obvious to some but is a lot less so to many other people trying to fight their way out of the slush pile: a query is not the same as a submission.
It’s easy to be confused by wording like “submit your query to…” or “after submitting your query…” so I’m not surprised this happens. I was chatting with an online contact who is also in the writing game and discovered that this important distinction had not been pointed out and as a result queries were going out one at a time while said writer sat by and languished in anticipation of replies. This is completely unreasonable and unfair as it may take a busy agency six months to reply to an unsolicited query.
Here’s the deal: if you are querying, you are asking permission to submit extensive materials for consideration. This permission-asking is not an exclusive and it is not a “submission of materials.” Agencies and publishers really don’t mind if you send out a bunch of “would you like to look at my manuscript?” requests all at the same time (so long as they are standard queries with a letter and little or no manuscript attached.) What they don’t like is for you to be showing the whole manuscript or extensive parts of it to someone else while they are looking at it too, with an eye to representation. Publishers who accept unagented submissions of complete or partial manuscripts also don’t care to have competition, but they have less choice in the matter since they often take more than a year to consider an unagented submission.
So, send many queries, send them in bunches, send them regularly, track them, and send more if you don’t get nibbles. When I was querying for an agent for Greywalker, I sent out 6 queries a week, starting with the agents I was most interested in (or had a personal lead to) as the first priority, then working down the list I had compiled. I sent out more queries the next week and was ready to send more the third week, but received a phone call from Steve Mancino which suspended my queries until it was resolved.
In my case, the first agent to offer was one of the agents I really wanted to work with, but if he hadn’t been, or if I’d felt uncomfortable about the agency, the representation contract, the agent’s “fit” to my personality, or their working style, I’d have kept looking. I’ve now met several professional writers who were unhappy with their first agent but felt they had no other choice. Sometimes, no one else comes forward on the first try, and then you have to decide if you would rather have representation you aren’t happy about, or no representation at all.
If you are lucky enough to have interest from more than one agent, you then have a new complication in your life: the exclusive submission. This is the point at which you really are submitting, rather than querying. First thing to do is determine if either/any of the agents requires an exclusive submission of your manuscript. Some don’t, most do. Next, let the agents know you have interest from another rep–this is a disclosure that may cause some people to pull out of negotiations but usually it’s just a formality that’s a really good idea. Publishing is a pretty small world and if you aren’t straight with the agents, word will eventually get around, which won’t reflect well on you. If you have to say “Umm… yeah… Agent X just contacted me and she’d like to look at the ms, also…” or “Wow, I’m really flattered you want to see it, but I have to tell you it’s on submission with Agent Y right now. Let me contact Y and find out where he stands with it…” then you are really in a lovely position.
This advantageous situation would not come to pass if the writer made one query at a time. One of the difficulties pre-published writers face is the apparent monolithic nature of the publishing industry. They think they are at its mercy and have few choices on how to get in the door. While there are some grains of truth in that, one thing you do have to bear in mind is that an agent is your rep. They work for you. They need clients–especially newer agents–just like you need an agent, so the relationship should be mutually advantageous, not dictatorial or abusive in either direction. You are offering material that may make them money and they are offering you an entree to the publishing world that gives you an edge over the writers who are submitting directly “over the transom.” Once an agreement is made, you both have weight to pull in the relationship. Writer must create salable work–which often means taking bitter pills from their agent–and agent must make a reasonable effort to sell the work once it’s in a reasonable condition. You need to feel confident in and comfortable with your rep. So it’s in your best interest to attract a good agent or have the opportunity to consider more than one.
Which brings us back to multiple queries. They’re OK–really, trust me I’m a professional 😉 Now… when you make these simultaneous or batched queries, make sure you are sending the query materials the agent wants. No more, no less. That may mean your queries are all a bit different, but in the age of computers and word processors, this shouldn’t be too hard. Go to the agent’s website–and if you’re looking at an agent or agency that doesn’t have a website by now, you may want to wonder why not–and find their query information. Then follow it to the letter.
Notice the use of bold italic there. I’m serious: do what the site says. websites or agency blogs are the most-frequently updated sources of information you can get about your potential agency. Use them. Don’t rely on the printed version–or even the electronic info on the websites–of Writer’s Market and Literary Marketplace to give you the skinny. Go to the source and get the real deal. And don’t forget to cross-check with Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware if you have any question about the legitimacy of the agency. Then write a template query letter that can be easily customized for the agent in question and prepare long and short synopsis, outline, and short samples so you can just print whatever is needed. Start a tracking database or spreadsheet (or use the ones on WM and LMP’s websites if you subscribe to those) to track your queries and subs, and get cracking!
Start with your dream agents–’cause you won’t know if you don’t try–but do be prepared to look elsewhere. Sometimes you find a pleasant surprise in an agent or agency you hadn’t given a lot of thought to. And if you make it a mechanical chore of customizing, printing, stuffing envelopes, and dumping them in the mail, you’ll obsess less about each one. That’s not to say you won’t be upset when the “thanks but no thanks” letters come in–and they will–but you’ll have an easy way to get over the sting. Stick out your tongue, tell the letter its sender will be sorry when you’re rich and famous, mark them done on your spreadsheet and go on to the next agent on your list. You’re much too busy to cry over them–you have other queries to send, other books to write.